City Living

The beauty of San José’s barrios

For years, San José has been a purgatory for backpackers and travelers alike: a necessary layover on route to Costa Rica’s sunnier destinations. It’s true that “Chepe,” as the city is affectionately known, can appear hectic and intimidating at first, and its gritty stereotype keeps even the more experienced travelers at bay. But give this city a chance and you might be pleasantly surprised.

In recent years the city has experienced a slow but steady renaissance. Forgotten barrios are blossoming, hip gastropubs are appearing by the numbers and live music venues are taking off. The area is divided into multiple neighborhoods, called “barrios,” and each provides a variety of amenities and a personality all its own. Thanks to the surge of artists, foodies and entrepreneurs, San José has become downright fun.

Teatro Nacional at night.
The Teatro Nacional in downtown San José is the city’s cultural heart. Photo by Andrés Madrigal


Avenida Central claims the heart of San José’s downtown core. The pedestrian-only street allows retail stores and fast food joints to sprawl over its edges. Downtown is reserved for business and politics, but the area is also the city’s cultural hub: the Gold, Jade and National Museum all reside here, along with the famed Teatro Nacional and Plaza de La Cultura. Accommodations are limited, but numerous green spaces scatter the area and provide a momentary escape from the throbbing downtown chaos.

Old building in barrio amón
Some of San José’s best architecture is concentrated in Barrio Amón. Photo by Maddie Johnson.

Barrio Amón

Just north of downtown lies the pleasant, historic neighborhood of Barrio Amón. One of the oldest districts in San José, the area is home to a cluster of old cafetalero (coffee baron) mansions. Recently, many of the historic buildings have been transformed into boutique hotels, fusion cafes, art galleries and offices. The grand, colonial buildings, wraparound porches, ornate roof eaves and other quaint details of a bygone era make this area perfect for an architectural stroll. Stop for lunch at Cafe Rojo, a Costa Rican restaurant with a Vietnamese twist, then pop by Galeria Namu and browse its expansive collection of Indigenous artifacts.

San Pedro, Costa Rica, party street
San Pedro’s party scene is anchored by la Calle de la Amargura, or Street of Bitterness. University students flock to the bars that line this street. Photo by Peter Majerle.

San Pedro

Home to the University of Costa Rica and therefore a thriving party scene, San Pedro is favored by students and radiates a young, hip vibe. The UCR is the oldest, largest and most prestigious university in Costa Rica, and worth a stroll through on a sunny day. Afterward, go bar hopping down Calle de la Amargura. This block spans from San Pedro’s main street down to the UCR and is full of various bars: anything from a place to sit and chat, grab some food, dance the night away and even sing karaoke can be found here. Most of the bars are open all day long, getting increasingly crowded as happy hour nears. The San Pedro Mall, Outlet Mall and Multiplaza del Este are all convenient to this area as well.

Craft beer in barrio Escalante.
Barrio Escalante has become the epicenter of a thriving culinary and craft beer revolution. Photo by Maddie Johnson.

Barrio Escalante & Los Yoses

San Jose’s eastern neighborhoods are favored by professionals and young families. These areas are more reserved, with older, larger homes and a casual grace. The residential streets are lined with colorful trees and offer a quieter escape, while still located in close proximity to downtown. Los Yoses has a number of foreign embassies and diplomatic enclaves in its vicinity, but still boasts numerous places to grab good grub and craft beer. Try El Gaff, an expansive eatery with multiple patios and complex pizzas. Or, wander up to Barrio Escalante, where its wide streets prove surprisingly trendy with inventive restaurants, craft beers and cuisine from around the world.

barrio la california, san jose
Trains, taxis, and buses bring revelers to Barrio La California’s party scene on Calle 21.

Barrio La California

Essentially a residential area as well, this neighborhood has a number of old, beautiful homes that have been converted into restaurants and language schools. With a number of Spanish learning institutes, plenty of tourists and expats flood the area hoping to brush up on their vocabulary. Barrio La California is also home to Calle 21 — sometimes referred to as the next Calle de la Amargura — for people who consider themselves past the “wave” of youth, yet no less immature.

soccer game in la sabana
La Sabana Park, at the far western end of Paseo Colón, is a popular place for pickup soccer games. Photo by Peter Majerle.

Paseo Colón

Paseo Colón is named after the long avenue that leads from downtown to La Sabana Park. Located on the Western edge of town, the neighborhood offers a mix of hostels, chain restaurants, and exciting new pubs. La Sabana Park is one of San Jose’s biggest and most prominent parks. It has been referred to as the “lungs of San José” because of its expansive amount of green space.

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  1. Monday April 24th, 2017 at 11:26 PM — Reply

    Great article. Every time we are in Costa Rica we spent a few nights in San Jose. I try to explain to friends that it is more the place you pass through on your way to somewhere else. I truly enjoy the city.

  2. luis araya
    Wednesday July 12th, 2017 at 03:17 PM — Reply

    as a tico I appreciate this article very much… I hope someday San Jose will become a nicest city to visit but to stay and walk and enjoy it, as much as we can enjoy others main cities in the world…

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